The Eye that Primes the Canvas
The etymological source of the word ‘ekphrasis’ is Gk. ekphrazein, which means ‘to describe’, ‘to point out’. According to the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, its first mention is in the work of Dionysius of Halicarnassus in the first century BCE. Later it became a speech which vividly bought the subject before the eyes of the listeners. Its essence was enargeia or ‘vividness’. One of the earliest examples is the description of the shield of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad.
In modern times the word generally refers to any literary response to a work of art. The response might be a detailed description, a formal echoing, a meditation, or all of these. John Hollander coined the phrase ‘notional ekphrasis’, to refer to the written description of a work of art that doesn’t actually exist. The aforementioned Shield of Achilles is an example, as is Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. In Parvit of Agelast,(1) although Pauline Bewick’s paintings were a catalyst, only a few of the poems are specifically about the paintings. Mainly they went their own way, either by association or to create the story; but they all came to life within the ambience or afterglow of the visual work. While it’s very different, and not a narrative, Seamus Cashman’s recent The Sistine Gaze(2) also responds to the entire Michelangelo oeuvre as an ambience or visual environment. Looked at in this way, we might be writing ekphrasis without being aware of it.
What is it that causes a poet to write about a work of art? Is the motivation primarily conceptual—the recognition of a question or thematic possibility? For me, with the Bewick paintings, I felt a strong conceptual component, and this seems to occur in much ekphrastic poetry. If you look at Emory University’s list of ekphrastic poems,(3) you’ll find many with a thematic or narrative bias, though they also mirror the feel and form of the paintings in various ways. Paul Engle’s ‘Venus and the Lute player’ is an exegesis of sorts, but in regular rhyming stanzas that crystallize the poem into the painting’s state of stillness. Donald Finkel, in ‘The Great Wave: Hokusai’, also offers an interpretation, and then extrapolates a passing observer, sprung from the Herbert Read epigraph.(4) He looks through the eyes of another watcher. John Berryman’s ‘Winter landscape’ appears to be a more or less faithful description of the Breughel, but the form of the poem, one long, breath-stretching sentence, belies thematic simplicity. The neat syntactic inversion at the end ‘descends’ like a cap and then ‘flies’ off. The fourth bird is a messenger. Again, the form seems to imply a unitary event, but in this case, it takes to the air like a flag.
Paul Durcan was commissioned to write a series of poems on paintings in the National Gallery of Ireland (Crazy about Women), but, as he writes in his preface, he had for some time regarded painting and cinema “as essential to my practice as a writer”. He goes on to say that “the challenge of art is to be inclusive” and that, born of his “lifetime’s romance” with the National Gallery, the book was his attempt to make “the intercourse between what is painted and what is written as reciprocal as it is inevitable. We are all members of the audience.”(5) What the audience, we, are watching, is life isn’t it—whatever occurs? If a work of art occurs, why not study it? Because all looking is interpretation, our eyes watch how other eyes watch, our ears listen to how other ears hear.
And then we translate. If self-expression is no expression, it’s also true to say that self-expression is the only expression. No self without relationship to other selves, no relationship without self-cohesion. Without self-cohesion, we are too ill-defined to be seen, or to present ourselves as objects. Must we present? However much it seems so, I don’t think it’s primarily concept that draws our senses to things. I think the concept is a layer on the electromagnetic, and an obfuscating cloak on the unspeakable survival mechanism. No art is merely conceptual, or merely formal. So many materials are involved in painting that in the presence of a work, we can’t tell whether our emotion is due to our identification with the subject matter, our sensual response to the materials and composition, or the subtle effect of the twentieth white layer of the fifty that primed the canvas. I don’t know if it was reputation or artistic execution or my inner circumstances that made me weak at my first visit to the Mona Lisa, though I’m almost certain that it was the power of colour that stunned me when I was first in the presence of a de Lempicka. Who knows?
Paul Durcan converses with the paintings. I see your story by relating it to mine. This is my version, my trans-version. With The Levite and His Concubine at Gibeah, by identifying with the Levite, the poet directs us not only to visible details of the painting, but also to its context and history. Motivations are construed. Building story from scene is the method of many ekphratic poems. In ‘Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad’, Edward Hirsch makes the house "ashamed". He also constructs the motivation of the painter—the “man behind the easel”. Again, an eye watching an eye.(6)
In ekphrasis one artist speaks to another. There’s that sense of ‘Doing the Same in English’.(7) Some poets apply this more imaginatively than others. Look at William Carlos Williams’s ‘Hunters in the Snow’ after the painting by Breughel, quoted in full below. The only syntactical markers are two capital letters—for the first word, “The”, and for “Breughel” in stanza 6. Breughel is “the painter”. So one could infer the phrase “The Breughel” as in, “the painting”, or “the one and only Breughel”, “the master”, “the eye”. We are still experiencing an eye looking at or through another eye. Notice also how Williams’ line arrangements confuse syntactical meaning, as in lines 1 of stanzas 3 and 4. The poem is still but turning on itself, beginning and ending with the word “picture”, and all directed by the capitalised/capital “Breughel” who is “concerned with it all”. This relationship is a pretty selfless one, as relationships go.
This is what I like best about the practice of art—empathy, Paul Durcan’s inclusivity. I’m reminded of George Saunders’ assertion that the best writing unifies, does not divide.(8) Division is the imposition of a stance, which is static stillness, as opposed to the motile stillness we experience in conceptual and formal response—travel in the same place, intensity. While paintings and poems appear to be immobile, they are anything but. Neither are they silent, as Wallace Stevens makes clear in his ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’.
The over-all picture is winter
in the background the return
from the hunt it is toward evening
from the left
sturdy hunters lead in
their pack the inn-sign
hanging from a
broken hinge is a stag a crucifix
between his antlers the cold
inn yard is
deserted but for a huge bonfire
the flares wind-driven tended by
women who cluster
about it to the right beyond
the hill is a pattern of skaters
Brueghel the painter
concerned with it all has chosen
a winter-struck bush for his
complete the picture
“You as you are? You are yourself.
The blue guitar surprises you.”
Footnotes and References
(1) Máighréad Medbh, Arlen House, September 2016.
(2) Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare: Salmon Publishing Ltd, 2015.
(5) The National Gallery of Ireland, 1991, xi.
(7) Title of a book by Maurice Scully, Dublin: Dedalus, 2008.
(8) The Brain-dead Megaphone, London: Bloomsbury, 2008.